How the Apple iPad could change digital marketing

by Tom Albrighton 8 February 2010 Digital and social

At first glance, the Apple iPad just seemed so optional – another expensive device, another charger to plug in, another possession to be honoured. And the benefits were so marginal.

But having thought about it a little more deeply, I’m beginning to see what all the fuss is about. And I think it’s crucial to look past physical features and understand the experience offered by the iPad – and how important it could be for the digital marketing of the future.

Experience is everything

Because the internet is dominated by technically literate (and highly prolific) bloggers and commenters, much early online reaction to the iPad focused on its technical features (or lack thereof). Stephen Fry (in this post) was one of the earliest technophiles to guide doubters towards the actual experience of using the iPad, rather than an actuarial dissection of its spec-sheet. ‘The moment you experience it in your hands you know this is class,’ he wrote. ‘This is a different order of experience.’

He was absolutely right. Laundry lists of features or functionality are not the point. I don’t buy an electronic product because it’s achieved a particular technical benchmark or offers tons of features relative to competitors. I buy it because it’s going to change my life for the better by offering new, fun or cool experiences. Not just in terms of using the product itself, but also in terms of the real-world context of my experience.

Apple and the digital life

History teaches us not to bet against Apple

History teaches us not to bet against Apple

Apple has always understood that people buy experiences, not features. Its products are brilliantly designed and ergonomically peerless, but they are much more than mere museum pieces or geekboy fodder. They are ‘insanely great’ because they offer new, compelling digital experiences that normal people want in their lives. Often, they do so without being particularly innovative in technical terms.

Consider the iMac. It delivered functionality that people could easily get elsewhere. It wasn’t innovative. It wasn’t even particularly cheap. But it presented personal computing in a brilliant, compact design and made it utterly fun and accessible. It was a runaway success because it repositioned computing as a cool leisure activity ‘for the rest of us’. The iMac experience laid the groundwork for Apple’s majestic and still-unfolding umbrella marketing concept: the ‘digital life’.

So, what experience will iPad users be buying into?


At the core of the iPad experience is what we might call ‘focused digital browsing’. The iPad puts content at the centre of your experience in a way that a computer or phone doesn’t.

Phones are about mobile communication first and foremost, and clearly not ideal for reading. Computers, because of their functional design (and ubiquity in the workplace), orient us towards accomplishing tasks whenever we use them. Their versatility also provides myriad distractions from reading.

Contrast that with the iPad, which can only run one app at a time, and isn’t a computer by any stretch of the imagination. Its mono-functionality deals a decisive blow to the fragmented, bitty concentration of today’s web user. No email or instant messages will intrude while users encounter content; the chances of having it read and understood properly just got a whole lot better.

For websites, copywriters might feel that longer, more involved text is appropriate, just as it is when writing advertisements for similarly ‘captive’ audiences in venues such as the Underground (US: subway). There might also be less emphasis on ‘interruptive’ marketing, or on trying to get users’ attention on a more general level. With an iPad, we can be much more confident that the audience is already attentive.

By the same token, PDFs and e-books will surely become much more important as marketing tools. Although they’ve always been important and viable, I don’t know anyone who reads them for pleasure. Scanning a product manual to find a key fact, yes. Working through a marketing guide page by page on screen, no. Not for me, anyway. But if the iPad takes off, I could well be recommending PDF brochures and e-books to my clients as important ways to build links with iPad-using customers.


The physical aspects of the iPad experience are fascinating. The user will probably be holding the tablet in their hands, like a book. Instead of clicking and scrolling with a spiky little black arrow or a tiny white hand, they’ll be caressing the screen with their very own fingers – literally touching the content. Ergonomically, the experience emphasises involvement, intimacy and closeness – as distinct from the remote, measured stance of the computer user sitting upright and using a mouse.

This might lead to more sensual, involving marketing content, aiming to capitalise on this ready-made intimacy between reader and medium. Perhaps we’ll also be trying to make on-screen shapes, colours, textures and words physically appealing – using images of objects that people like to touch (shiny levers, velvet curtains, polished wood). Over time, more sophisticated interaction through touch is sure to emerge (certainly through apps), but it will need to complement content if it’s going to work on a marketing level and not seem gimmicky.


The iPad user seems very likely to be comfortable: probably at home, at leisure, in a comfortable location of their choice such as an armchair or sofa. Unlike readers at office desks, they’re not wishing they’re somewhere else. In fact, the urge to prolong pleasure is likely to keep them exactly where they are. They are ‘voluntarily captive’, and once again this might mean we can target them with longer, more involved marketing messages.

With the iPad, content really will be ‘beamed in’ to the leisure heart of the home. There may be the potential to allude much more directly to the user’s environment when selling particular products – sofas, for example – or, more generally, to capitalise on an existing mindset of leisure and reflection. For many products, the iPad is likely to put the user in a much better ‘buying place’ than a work laptop or even a machine set up at a home workstation.


Some people feel the iPad threatens the paper book, but I don’t. Again, we must remember that people choose experiences, not products. An example: I might well buy vintage sci-fi in paper form, so I can read it in one of the four classic non-digital reading venues: beach, bed, bath and bog. However, I’m much more likely to get a business title in e-book form, so I can scan, search or quote from it more easily.

Instead of making a one-time, binary decision about which medium or device I’ll use to view ‘my content’, I’m selecting content and medium together to create my reading experience in a much more sophisticated, plural way. And this is how things always pan out. Just as only the most cutting-edge digital evangelist has ditched all their CDs and MP3s for Spotify, so only a handful of readers will switch to e-books exclusively. If old ways still appeal, users preserve their choice.

So even if the iPad takes off big time, we won’t know whether or when our audience are using an iPad to view our digital content. They’ll choose the channel that suits them at the time. But just as podcasts came to be strongly associated with iPods (even taking their name from them), I believe that some occasions, tasks, product types and market segments will come to be very strongly associated with tablet use.

For example, if you owned an iPad and did your weekly shop online, it seems very likely that you’d want to walk round the house with the iPad, checking what you needed and adding items to your basket as you went. It’s easy to imagine how other online selections or purchases could be supported by this kind of ‘around the home’ iPad use: contents insurance, home improvements and so on.

In the early days, we’ll probably just want to test on an iPad, and perhaps provide some content that’s flagged as being ‘especially for iPad users’. Later, we’ll probably plan, write and design digital marketing content in an iPad version – or even design exclusively for iPad. And at that point, I might have to consider buying one myself…

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